At last, a SACD machine from someone other than Sony! This time, it's a Marantz - Reference Series SA-1, described as a no-compromise "ultimate quality" player.
Man, is this thing gorgeous! The SA-1 weights in at a hefty 40lbs, liveried in rich, satiny champagne finish. It's a front-loader, the drawer set to the left of a centrel circular display. The green tint of the display window perfectly sets off the bronze-tone feet and the golden luster of the machined aluminum-alloy top, side, and front panels. Makes a guy wanna stroke it! I swear I heard it purrrr...
The SA-1's dispay is easy to read from a distance, and bright red LEDs set below the track info indicate SACD or CD mode. Large Play, Stop, and Pause buttons smartly echo the display, to the right of a pair of smaller SAC/C and Display On/Off buttons. Below them is a discrete row of Open/Close and Track Advance/Back switches, with the remote sensor last in line. The slim, golden-hued remote echoes the elegance and functionality of the control interface.
Around back, two single-ended RCA plugs sit above a parallel pair of XLR balanced output connectors. A small graphic next to the XLR explains the wiring layout. In what Marantz amusingly calls the "USA system," pin 2 is cold, pin 3 is hot. The SA-1 also ships with pin 2 hot and pin 3 cold - the actual US standard - but that's referred to as the "European System"! Ya gotta chuckle - it's not quite a global village yet.
A pair of digital ouputs (TosLink and coax S/PDIF) are fitted to the rear panel. A datastream only appears at these output when the SA-1 is playing a regular CD; there is no SACD information, even downsampled/decimated. Finishing it off, there's an IEC mains-in socket and the same Filter switch (Standard/Custom) as in the Sony SCD-1. I left it in its Standard setting to avoid problems with associated components, thus restricting the SA-1's ultra-high-frequency output.
The Sa-1's technical details were very hard to come by. But, as the Iron Chief pufs while blowing, "I did my best..."
The interior looks like a Cartier jewelry case. Heavy duty mechanical construction damps internal resonance and mechanically induced jitter with a copper-plated double-layer steel bottom plate and shock-absorbent mounting feet. Behind the drive and toward the chassis' center, a cylindrical polished copper houseing, sits a shielded toroidal transformer featuring "Super Core Ring" technology. A cross-section of the core reveals it to be oval, not just another oblong lumo. A separate transformer drives the fluorescent display.
It was obvious from the get-go that the SA-1's drive mechanism was special: precise sounding and very quick in action. The laser pickup ramps up fast like a squarewave; it's off, then it's on, scooting around doing your bidding, more atomic clock than Swiss watch. Even the ToC comes up fast. The ounds of precision relays accompany every control function, the tray's motor practically shouting "high torque"! It respects your time, babe.
The drive features an aluminum diecast tray with diecast zinc parts and base chassis. The optical pickup has dual lenses for reading CD, SACD, or duallayer media. In fact, the SA-1 will even read CD-Rs. The "Optical Transducer" is covered with what appears to be a perforated copper shield. The circuit diagram shows he signal exiting the drive on various CD and SACD data lines to various filter/selector arrays, arriving shortly thereafter at the four TDA1547 1-bit Dual Bitstream DACs.
SACD uses Direct Stream Digital (DSD) technology at a sampling rate of 2.8224mHz to deliver a theoretical frequency response of DC to more than 100kHz, with greater than 120dB of dynamic range. DSD is analogous the the music's waveform, encoding it as a 1-bit pulse train.
According to product manager Satoshi Suzuki, although the SACD specification is 120dB, the signal/noise ratio of a single TDA1547 DAC7 module is 106dB. "There are two pairs of DAC7s for each channel. We shift the DSD data one word (a half cycle of sinewave) and send that shifted data to the second DAC7 and mix out the oupt. This is effective at reducing noise associated with noise-shaping because the data shift changes the phase of the noise." In CD mode, an 8x oversampling digital fiter TDA1307 sends the 16-bit/44.1kHz signal to the same array of eight Bitstream DACs.
But no matter how good the power supply of the DACs, nothing really happnes withoud a good analog output stage. Some have critized Sony for the parts-bin mentality evident in the SCD-1's output stage, well-built though it may be. However, without dissing Sony, Marantz explains that they use premium capacitors and other components for maximum sonic purity.
Suzuki: "Marantz believes that slew rate is extremely important for reproducing the wide-range frequency response of the SACD specification. So we use HDAMs - High Definition Amplifier Modules. The SA-1 uses eight of them: six are dual HDAMs in differential configuration, and four function as analog filter amplifiers. The output data from the dual-differential DAC7 modules is sent directly to these four HDAMs. In addition, two dual HDAMs are in the unbalanced output, two regular HDAMs in the balanced output circuit."
What the heck is HDAM, anyway? "Normally, the output stage in an unbalanced circuit is designed with discrete parts, but then it's very hard to make it completely symmetric. Our HDAM module has a well-balanced positive and negative circuit in a single package. That way, both channels are favorably processed."
Operation and Music
Unsing the DA-s was nicely intuitive. The SA-1 defaults to SACD if you feed it a dual-layer disc, but you have to hit Stop before it'll reinitialize in either format.
When i listened to dual-layer hybrid recordings, i listened to both SACD and CD layers on the Marantz, then flipped the discs into the Accuphase DP-75V 24/192 upsampler and the Linn C12. When i auditioned SACD-only releases that i also had on CD, i did the same. Listen, switch, listen, switch....where am i?
Would the promise of SACD be realized in this pretty, pricely player? Slowly i turned, step by step...
Tasting and Judging
"The Compact Disc was a good idea," proclaims a booklet found in Sony SACD recordings. "This is even better." I smiled wryly, like Chairman Kaga on Iron Chef. In any case, SACD is obviously a maturing format, from the evidence of the 20 or so SACD-only discs on hand, not to mention a goodly number of dual-layer discs. Auditioning made it clear that the SA-1's sound was extremely transparent. For instance, the player showed very little sympathy for any playback chain anything less than stellar. Only the right cables (Cardas Golden Reference balanced or TARA The One/Air One single-ended), the right preamplification (Mark Levinson Reference No.32), the right amplification (Krell 350Mc monoblocks), and just the right speaker cable (Cardas again) would do the trick through our JMlab Utopias. This was something of a pain in the ass, but I sensed from the start that it was worth the chase, and so applied myself to the task.
I started with the SACD-only edition of Bruno Walter's 1959 recording of Mozart's Symphonies 38 and 40 with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Sony SRGR703). Revered though the "Prague" may be, it's No.40, K.550, that does it for me. From the first moment of the first movement I sat entranced, mouth agape. Notes: "Massed strings are particularly well served. The engagingly sweet highs are nonetheless very finely delineated. It's very liquid and dead-on acoustic, the strings so real in that slightly piercing way that can be heard at a live event, yet still sweet and attractive. So deep, so wide, so transparent—the air and tonal color are extraordinary!" I closed my eyes and settled in. The truth is, I haven't listened to a complete symphony on record in years. But from the first notes, I had no choice but to listen through to the end, completely bound to my listening chair.
I like to kid myself that I'm pretty jaded, but listening to this SACD proved an over-the-top musical experience. Clarity, coherence, and palpability usually come at some slight cost with most other audio devices. Not with the SA-1. I've enjoyed components that take over the acoustic space of our listening room before, but never so comprehensively as this! In fact, listening to the Andante of K.550 completely redefined "transparency" for me.
At symphony's end, I sat and thought about what I'd just experienced. I realized—"oh, the howah"—that there wasn't a single element of the presentation that didn't wipe CD's clock. Scale, dynamics, imaging, air, bass, midrange, highs—more, better, best! Whew.
I turned next to the Steve Davis Project's Quality of Silence and played my favorite track, "One Two Free." I've mentioned the acoustic bass and drum work found here in other reviews, but comparing the CD to the SACD stood my hair on end. Notes: "Utterly free of artifacts, thrilling, tight, and impactful—just so damn acoustic!" There's some mighty deep bass in this track that chuffles out of the speakers as Davis stomps his kick-drum pedal. Tom Jung of DMP explains that it's produced by Davis' heel thumping the raised platform on which the drums are set. More notes: "I've never heard it sound so visceral before! 'Transparency' as an ascribed quality of audio no longer exists; SACD goes beyond 'bracketing' concepts such as that. It's alive in front of me beyond any ability to describe!" Linear and wideband, the frequency response didn't jump out at me in any particular way, however exemplary in every aspect.
Want to listen to a fun dual-layer recording? Try Monty Alexander's Stir It Up: The Music of Bob Marley (Telarc CD-83469-SA). Call it Island Music, Marley with a jazz twist. It's an excellent recording, each piano note precise, clear, and tonally full, zero overhang anywhere, the whole presentation coherent beyond belief. No, the music isn't very challenging, but in my view, music can (should?) convey love-of-the-moment as well as deep intellectual profundity.
The bass was tremendous—very controlled, tight, extended, and powerful. The organ sounded open and happy on top, per my notes, sweet but oh-so-clear, fresh as a mountain stream. While this recording is pretty awesome in CD mode, after I'd heard it in SACD mode, the CD level lost something of that wonderful clarity and transparency. Notes: "Again, there's not a single sonic parameter where SACD doesn't kill CD!"
The Very Tall Band, with Oscar, Ray, and Milt, is one of my favorite Telarcs. Cue up "Bass Solo Medley" and close your eyes. Some jackalope starts coughing a few seconds into the track and the poor hack never shuts up, but for sure you'll feel like reaching for a napkin to wipe yourself down. Switching to the CD layer on the Marantz, the coughing head was still fairly startling, but turning to the music—yes, I know, it's about the music—I found the sound slightly thicker, more veiled, less coherent in some elemental way. The presentation was still attractive, although I preferred the Accuphase and its upsampled 16/44.1 processing. In general, at higher listening levels, CD was slightly less refined than SACD, a bit harder to take. Not that the sound turned hard—it was just harder to listen to cranked way up. In fact, rather surprisingly, I preferred single-layer SACDs or CDs in comparison to their dual-layer equivalents in all the players. But ultimately, there was no comparison—SACD was that much better.
Kind of Blue made the Krells run kinda hot! Notes: "With the SACD version there's a limitlessness to the music: a wide and very deep soundstage, soaring tonality, horn ripping but still sweet, very communicative." Switching to the Sony SBM CD on the SA-1, I found it less wide and free, but still possessed of an abiding and powerful bass line. Everything about the presentation was "good," but I lost something of the excitement and involvement.
Listening to the SACD version of Mighty Sam McClain's "Too Proud," from Joe Harley's BluesQuest, I noted a very special illumination from the midrange up, a subtle openness that moved my soul (according to my effulgent notes). Vocals, both male and female, were entirely open, palpable, and captivating on SACD. As a format, it never missed.
There was some kind of metaphysical change that came over me every time I listened to the SA-1. Call it relaxation, an inner acknowledgment that, yeah, that's music. It wasn't just my intellectual self that recognized it; there was some kind of physical reaction that let me relax into the music. For me, the SA-1 completely fulfilled the promise of SACD.
While I didn't have the Sony SCD-1 on hand for direct comparisons, I'd have to say that, in SACD mode, I preferred the Marantz. The Sony was more opulent, more eager to please, especially given the adjustable filters for CD playback. The SA-1 was entirely more purist in its presentation.
As regards 16/44.1 media, well...I still prefer upsampling on both the Accuphase and the dCS 972-driven Elgar. But there wasn't a single recording I didn't enjoy more in SACD mode when that choice was available, and by a wide margin.
"How's that Marantz?" a good friend demanded. Before I could draw breath to answer, he was proclaiming, "Before I buy digital again, I'm waiting for a player that'll do it all!" I think he waits in vain. Such a mythical beast, in my view, will never be made.
The wild card in all of this is the 20-grand Linn CD12, a sample of which has been resident in our system of late. I noted in my Krell 350Mc monoblock review in August that 16/44.1 just didn't do it for me anymore, but to that I must add a caveat: the Linn CD12 is an incredible player! I don't understand why it's so great, but it is. It, too, embodies something of that awesome clarity found in the SACD-driven Marantz, if still shaded toward PCM sound. Compared to SACD, even upsampled 16/44.1 sounded a bit more "reconstructed" and unnatural. Which, in fact, it is.
The SA-1 made discovering music a thrill again—the very thing audiophiles live for. Some say we reviewers worship too much at the Altar of Equipment. But for me, the foundation, the basis, the kernel of my love affair with the High End is fundamentally linked with some higher need—spiritual, mathematical, I just can't say—to receive the music into my mind and body. Taking things at face value, and ignoring for the moment whether CD and SACD masterings are the same or not, the Marantz SA-1 always moved me that way. I loved it. I will miss it.